Episode 1 of the 2016 season of the reality cooking series Hell’s Kitchen aired Friday, September 23, starring Traverse City’s own Kimberly Ryan. We checked in with Chef Kim Ryan to get her take on the first episode, her life and her experiences at a handful of Traverse City restaurants that helped her hone her skills.
Note: As you’ll see on the show, there are two contestants named Kimberly so our Kim goes by Chef Ryan.
MyNorth.com: You were born and raised in Traverse City and came back after graduating from Michigan State and then the Culinary Institute of Michigan in Muskegon. Care to take a minute to love up your hometown?
Chef Ryan: Obviously the culinary scene is the main thing. But I’ve always loved being around the water. When I was growing up I always told myself I wanted to get out of this small town. But then after culinary school, I couldn’t wait to come back. The first internship I was offered was at The Cooks’ House and I couldn’t wait to take it.
MyNorth.com: In those years that you were away the culinary scene in Traverse City really blossomed:
Chef Ryan: Oh yeah. Every time I came home for a visit it seemed like there was a new winery, new brewery or new restaurant. During my time at Michigan State and culinary school, the food and wine scene just exploded up here.
MyNorth: So, how did you find your passion for cooking?
Chef Ryan: My parents were separated when I was very young, and my mom worked two jobs and she worked nights. My mom showed me you have to work hard—two jobs if you have to. She would always try to look out for us and have something in the fridge for my brothers and me, but my mom is a terrible cook. She makes the steak and then the potatoes out of a box. So it came down to, well, I can cook. So I started watching the Food Network, watching very old Iron Chef episodes—when it wasn’t even in English. I started cooking for my brothers.
My dad was very strict and when I was at his house I wasn’t allowed to do anything. We didn’t even have TV. So I read everything. I am a big reader. By the time I’d read through the library at my dad’s I was left with cookbooks, so I started reading those. So both of my parents steered me in this direction.
MyNorth.com: What type of foods do you like to cook the best?
Chef Ryan: Any kind of meat. I like working with all different types of beef and pork. That’s my thing. But I try to experiment with everything because in my mind I am still a new chef. I like a lot of spicy food too. I like everything that is bad for you. I like comfort food. I’ve had a couple kids now so I’m not so skinny, but I was always very small and people were always surprised that I eat such terrible food.
MyNorth.com: Beyond that, the Traverse City food and wine scene really helped you expand your culinary horizons.
Chef Ryan: The very first restaurant out of school I worked at was The Cooks’ House. Chef Eric and Chef Jen, they both shaped me. Their styles are very different and it’s so cool to see how they run the restaurant together. From there I skipped around to a lot of places like a most young chefs do. I worked at the Filling Station—that’s where I learned how to spin pizzas like I do on the show. Then I worked at the vegetarian restaurant Om where I learned how to cook with no meat and no butter. That was a really big challenge because I had to learn how to make things taste good without all that fatty goodness. Then I was at Black Star Farms for a little over two years. That’s where I learned bigger events like weddings for 300 people. That’s where I learned that it’s not all about making the food as pretty as you can but it’s about getting it ready as fast as you can for 250 people.
MyNorth.com: Okay, let’s dig into Episode 1. It starts out with Chef Gordon Ramsay putting you and the other 17 contestants into through a real Army boot camp. Beyond suiting up in Army digies, what was that like?
Chef Ryan:. We were put on this bus didn’t know where we were going. I hadn’t met any of the other contestants. Everybody was talking up a big game. I just wanted to take it all in. I was very quiet. Once we got up to this boot camp I was like okay, I’m in pretty decent shape. We actually had to put on uniforms and go through a whole obstacle course and run for a while too. The Army people put us through the paces for the day.
MyNorth.com: Well, you made it through boot camp … but as they say, out of the frying pan and into the fire! The next stop was Hell’s Kitchen where all the contestants had 45 minutes to make their signature dishes. You made seared scallops with mango jalapeno salsa and spicy toasted Rice Crispies. Say what!? Rice Crispies—do tell how those came to plate up with scallops:
Chef Ryan: That came from being home one night and my daughter was already asleep. I was making scallops and I couldn’t leave and go to the store to grab something to go with it. So I reached into the pantry and found her cereal and thought, hmmm, let’s see what we can do here. So I tossed them with melted butter and spices like cumin and coriander.
MyNorth.com: That must be crazy trying to cook in a kitchen you don’t know your way around with 17 strangers.
Chef Ryan: It’s absolutely crazy. You don’t know where anything is and you have 45 minutes and it’s go! I didn’t know anybody. I just tried to put my head down and do the job really well.
MyNorth.com: You made your dish, you presented it to Chef Ramsay and … you got a 5! The highest score you could get. It was one of only several fives he awarded that episode and it put the women’s team ahead of the men’s. That must have been a rush!
Chef Ryan: It was my first time talking to Chef Ramsay. In my head, I was like, ‘Why the hell did you make this dish?’ I know my food tastes good. I knew it was ok. But I definitely did not expect a 5. I was very, very proud. I welled up a little bit.
MyNorth.com: You seemed a little nervous talking in front of the camera. Yet, you really explained yourself beautifully by saying that part of your reason for being on the show was to demonstrate to your young daughter that it’s possible to have a career that you love.
Chef Ryan: I really wanted to not seem too shy or scared. But I was and I am. I doubt myself a little bit too much when it comes to stuff like that. My goal was to not be the first person sent home or to give him a dish that he spit out. So I accomplished both of those goals. Once I got a little more comfortable I just tried to keep my head steady and focused.
MyNorth.com: So you were divided into two teams—men v. women. The men started to fall apart right away, but the women quickly develop a highly effective esprit de corps. What happened there?
Chef Ryan: In my experience as a chef, the guys are bigger bitches than the girls, bigger egos, more to prove. Women team up and work together, and we realized we need to team up or one of us was going home.
MyNorth.com: So the women won the competition and the reward was dinner at Takami Sushi in LA. Do you recall what you ordered and how Gordon Ramsay is outside Hell’s Kitchen?
Chef Ryan: We had like everything on the menu. It was wonderful. Sushi, all different appetizers. We got champagne with it that I really needed. I was still shaking from the competition. It was nice to sit down and relax.
Outside of the kitchen, Chef Ramsay is an absolutely wonderful man. He has a wife and four kids. In the kitchen, he is exactly what he appears to be. There is no bullshit there. But outside of the kitchen, he’s amazing.
MyNorth.com: So that dinner was the night of the competition?
Chef Ryan: Yep, you have about 30 minutes to make yourself look presentable and off you go.
MyNorth.com: The gray beanie you wore throughout the entire episode … was that a security thing?
Chef Ryan: I had been in Michigan the day before in November and it was kind of what I felt like wearing. I actually do wear those kind of hats all the time.
MyNorth.com: Have you remained friends with any of the contestants after the filming?
Chef Ryan: I did. I would say out of all 18 there are two of them I talk to on a daily basis. We had this experience we went through and no one can take that from us. I am really happy with the friendships that I’ve made.
MyNorth.com: Can you share which contestants those are?
Chef Ryan: Heidi and I connected from the gate. We both are moms. We both have daughters. We both had our heads in the game—you know, we weren’t being cocky. We really just bonded from day one. She actually said, “You do realize we are on TV right?” And I was like, yeah, Heidi, what’s the problem? And she said: “Did you even brush your hair this morning?” I said, I don’t know how to do my hair—my mom never did my hair. She said, “Here, let me braid it for you.”
And then Johnny—he’s just sweet and hilarious. He reminds me of my friends from Traverse City. I have always had a lot of sweet and fun guys friends.
MyNorth.com: Are you back and cooking at Alliance now?
Chef Ryan: Yep, I have been cooking there since March. James [Alliance chef James Bloomfield] is a good friend of mine. We’ve known each other for a few years. We were young chefs at Cooks’ House together. We catered together in Colorado. It’s just wonderful. He is one of the most talented chefs I’ve ever met. I like to go there even on my days off and that really says something. His food is just amazing. And then there’s Pete Peterson [former owner of Northern Michigan’s Tapawingo restaurant ], I mean he’s a legend.
MyNorth.com: Speak to the support from Traverse City?
Chef Ryan: I’m a little bit of a homebody especially with two kids now. But I have been really happily surprised at how much support I’ve been getting … although it’s getting a little much to go to, you know, go to Meijer and get stopped. But it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I really want to be nice to everybody.
MyNorth.com: The Grand Prize is a job in Las Vegas … are you willing and ready to move?
Chef Ryan: I mean it would be an opportunity I wouldn’t pass up. None of us would.
MyNorth.com: Any sneak previews of Episode 2?
Chef Ryan: The challenge is Crepes Grand Prix. We are racing the boys—running around a ballpark in golf carts. It’s hilarious.
MyNorth.com: You watched Episode 1 at Little Fleet. Where will you watch Episode 2 (airing this Friday, September 30 at 8 p.m.)?
Chef Ryan: We are planning a party at TC whiskey.
Tickets for watching the show at TC Whiskey Co. (201 E. 14th St.) are $10. Available at the door only, limited to the first 30 people. Doors open at 6 p.m.